The heir to the Saudi throne is tightening his grip on power with an ‘anti-corruption’ sweep, arresting dozens of traditionalist figures in a bid to modernise the kingdom.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was barely known outside Saudi Arabia before his father became king of the leading oil exporter in 2015.
But since being lined up as the next leader, the 32-year-old has made monumental changes as part of a drive to promote ‘moderate and tolerant Islam’ in the strictly religious country.
Early today a newly-formed anti-corruption committee arrested 49 people, including 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers.
Among those detained in five-star hotels in the capital Riyadh is billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal – who is one of the richest men in the world and owns the British capital’s top hotel the Savoy.
The arrests mainly involve traditionalist figures, who are loyal to the kingdom’s ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam Wahabbism.
Detaining them will help the prince with his plans to revert Saudi Arabia to a more ‘moderate Islam’ and ‘eradicate the remnants of extremism very soon’, plans he described to the media late last month.
He is very popular with young Saudis, who make up 70 per cent of the population, and says he wants to promote a ‘life in which our religion translates to tolerance’.
His modernisation plans have included lifting the ban on women drivers and investmenting $500billion (£381billion) in a new city and business zone.
The proposals, grouped under the name Vision 2030, also feature plans for the partial privatisation of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, and the creation of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.
Cinemas are also soon expected to return to everyday Saudi life after music concerts were reintroduced.
Among those detained are former finance minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, a board member of the Saudi Aramco oil company, economy minister Adel Fakieh, former Riyadh governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah and former head of the royal court Khalid al-Tuwaijiri.
Another key arrest is Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the Saudi Binladin construction group, and brother of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
The country’s national guard Minister Prince Miteb bin Abdullah and navy commander Admiral Abdullah bin Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Sultan have also both been replaced with no explanation.
After news of the sweep broke, the Saudi information ministry stated the government would seize any asset or property related to the alleged corruption, meaning London’s Savoy hotel could become state property in the kingdom.
‘The accounts and balances of those detained will be revealed and frozen,’ a spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s information ministry said.
‘Any asset or property related to these cases of corruption will be registered as state property.’
Those detained are being held in five-star hotels across the capital, Riyadh, in the anti-corruption sweep.
Reports suggest some of the detainees are being held at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.
A royal court official, Badr al-Asaker, on Sunday appeared to confirm the arrests on Twitter, describing a ‘historic and black night against the corrupt’.
The king also ousted Prince Miteb bin Abdullah from his post as head of the National Guard overnight.
The prince is reportedly among those detained in the sweep, as is his brother, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, who was once governor of Riyadh.
Both are sons of the late King Abdullah, who ruled before his half brother King Salman.
Saudi Twitter accounts released several other names of those arrested, such as Alwalid al-Ibrahim, a powerful Saudi businessman with ties to the royal family who runs the Arabic satellite group MBC; Amr al-Dabbagh, the former head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority; Ibrahim Assaf, the former finance minister; and Bakr Binladin, head of the Saudi Binladin Group, a major business conglomerate.
An aviation source has said that security forces had grounded private jets in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, potentially to prevent any high-profile figures from leaving.